Chaos, meaning and patterns in the randomness

fractal21(image c/o

I don’t know if you have managed to catch the BBC4 programme the Secret Life of Chaos, fronted by Jim Al-Khalili, a lecturer from my alma mater…if you didn’t you missed a treat.  A truly thought provoking piece of TV and one that makes you question everything you know.

For me, this programme had the appeal that sci fi had as a teenager.  And when you get down to how to find order in chaos and fractals, then it’s pushing all the right buttons to get your mind buzzing.  Al-Khalili makes great use of Mandelbrot pictures to explain chaos and self-replication. And the pictures are truly incredible – he noted that Mandelbrot’s fractals had been called the “thumbprint of God” because of their infinite complexity, but zooming into each piece of the Mandelbrot patterns to find yet more tiny versions is amazing. You can make you own with the fractal generator, of course…
And that chaos, far from being random, is a pattern repeated again and again throughout nature. The programme illustrated this with examples of all sizes, from coastal erosion to bird flight to the construction of our own lungs.

Al-Khalili said that can use chaos theory therefore to show that complex can be the result of simple – branching over many generations leads to greater and greater complexity.
This was presented as though it was thought to be a revolutionary idea.
Actually anyone in a bureaucratic office environment knows that must be the case – a simple instruction from on high to do X results in a number of people needing to talk to other people , making arrangements, using different pieces of technology, attempting to balance different things that are affected by that simple command to “make it so”.  Of course it is just possible that our brains have evoled in such a way as to make the simple complicated…

To illustrate that evolution is the tool that best demonstrates this repetitive pattern and branching, the programme used the model of computers that evolve their own programming.  The computer was programmed to get some virtual robot legs to get up and walk and then move a body. If the effort succeeded that model was allowed to “breed” giving birth to the next generation of model and within 5 generations there was a notable improvement in getting the robot walking, but then left to run the programme enabled many amazing things to happen, illustrated with beautifully programmed robot bodies wrestling and slamming into walls etc.
The interesting thing here was that the computer itself programmed amazing things that no human programmer would have done. But to me that was not the only interesting thing. The analogy made was that this is evolution in action, the random mutations that give advantage leading to improved versions (with no value judgement of what improvement means).  But that’s not the case, is it? 
The programme was set up with a purpose (to see what a computer could do with self-evolving programming), the computer was given a set of simple but clear instructions by a human programmer (find which models are successful in achieving an aim and when you find them, breed them to create the next generation to model evolution). It was not, in the words of Bill Bryson “nothing, which exploded”, the programme was programmed into the computer like a message in its DNA.  So basically it was all set in train by an intelligent designer. Oh.
Now you know I’m no creationist – I understand that the Bible is a document formed of the writings of many different individuals over a long span of history but with a common unifying theme and “God breathed” message.
I have no problem with God so loving the world that he set it to run and develop through evolution and on discovering that free will meant sometimes his creations deliberately choosing imperfectly, showing that although we’ve corrupted what he’s intended for us but that he loves us anyway and if we ask him wholeheartedly to, the price of our wrongdoing is paid and he forgives us. But I’ve no truck with the sort of creator Terry Pratchett sketches out, adjusting the wings of insects or giving elephants wheels.
Does chaos theory and fractal maths mean there’s no room for God the programmer?
More of this in a minute.
But before I get too complicated myself, there’s a few things that this truly interesting programme raised for me that I’d like to put out for further thought and discussion:

1) ultimately the question of where we come from has one of two answers: something must either come from something (God made it, ex deus), or from nothing (it just happened, ex nihilo). Knowing the tools by which the changes happen doesn’t affect the need to know and understand this;

2) I’m still not clear, no matter what the level of complexity that can arise from the very simple, how life can come from this self-replicating process. Despite Frankenstein being so incorporated into our outlook that some forget it’s fiction, and despite the attempts to create life in a test tube (though not with the gases that were around at the time that life is thought to have started) we still have not managed to create life from scratch and nothing in this programme showed how inanimate dust from an explosion went from inanimate to self-replicating.  To me, know that complexity comes from simplicity does not change this question of how life comes to exist;

3) As a knockdown “proof” of evolution as the only answer to the “how” question, as set out above I’m not sure what the “evolving computer programme” actually shows… something that’s come from the evolutionary process uses it’s mind to create a computer that responds to programming by evolving it?

4) then there’s the problem, as always, of Jesus.

And it comes down to this – either he did what we think he did (and I’ve gone into this at length in other posts), or he didn’t.
If he didn’t, then fair enough, let’s go with the fractal mathematics and the science of patterns explains chaos and the purpose of life is to self-replicate with meaningless mutation occasionally lending advantage.  I personally find this bleak, depressing and unconvincing.  It means the only answer to “why” is “it doesn’t matter, it’s just because”, that the genes are in control and that our brains have evolved to ask “why” without even a genetic advantage through learning. And I know bleak doesn’t mean wrong just because it’s not a nice thing – I just wonder how people that seriously believe that this is thecase get out of bed in the morning…

But if Jesus did what Christians think he did, then we’ve a responsibility to look at what he said and did, to understand that there is a personal and loving God who responds to prayer but nevertheless is unwilling to catch every sparrow or aeroplane. 
This is not a comfortable concept for some people – for example Eddie Izzard contends that God can’t exist because otherwise he’d just flicked off Hitler’s head.  But Christians say that God loves us and gives us choices – we say that he relies on human agents to challenge evil because otherwise we’d be puppets so the God that we worship expects us to come up with ways of overcoming evil without him intervening as directly as he had to in the past. I like the threading a needle analogy that Lee Strobel  tells to explain this point (the daughter of an interviewee wanted to learn to sew, but she keep stabbing herself in the finger while trying to thread a needle, but he resists the urge to just take over and do it for her – she needs to learn to do it herself and when she does the triumph and pride in her newfound ability is worth so much more, and of course equips her with a new life skill).
It’s the mad, bad or God dilemma. Again. 
But while fractals help us explain chaos (and also look pretty) this reductionist approach to the complex world around us doesn’t help us think about this so well documented, so hugely interpreted event, and what is pretty much THE decision that needs to be come to in life. 
I guess what it’s saying is that ressurection is not the norm, doesn’t fit the pattern and therefore didn’t happen (so mad for saying what he said and everyone after bad for perpetuating it?)
But with the best investigation of the evidence that I can do separated by 2000 and a language divide, I can only conclude that it did happen.
So if chaos is not really random but following the patterns of fractal mathematics, and patterns are self-replicating, and Jesus rose from the dead, then there’s hope.  We’re promised that by Jesus paying the price for our sin, we’ll also be raised from the dead.  

One further thought.  If you look at church history, from church formation, pinning down and developing beliefs, schisming, debate and interpretation you have to accept that branching and complexity from simplicity can be seen even there – fractal patterns in an organisational structures context.

Finally, there’s a joke that tickles me…
 In the future a scientist says to God, “we don’t need you.  We can now create the spark of life, and create computers that evolve by themselves. We’re so confident that we challenge you to produce a new being, from scratch. If you’re really omnipotent, you’ll accept the challenge”
And God forms a being from the dust, a beautiful creature into which he breathes life, gives it a loving kiss on the forehead and lets it go off to live its life.
The scientist bends down and takes a handful of dust, but God shakes his head: “uhuh – you get your own dust”…

Truth is stranger than fiction…

1612R-17671-main_Full… or what I read in the newspaper today.

My train got delayed today which meant that, after clearing the work emails etc., the only thing I had to read was Metro, the free newspaper.  I normally stop reading when I get to the sports pages and the classifieds, but today I had time and I saw this advert (I’ve copied the exact spelling faithfully):

I am looking for a married lady called Mrs Pauline Pratt I think she is living in Croyden and it would be great to find her. I do not know her address as it has been a long time since I saw her last.  I met her in Sandown on the Isle of White in 1960-1965.  She was staying with her husband Alan Pratt, he was an understanding man with a cottage in Ashfod, Kent.  If you have any information please email

Now, I know nothing about Mr Sard, or the Pratts for that matter.  And the whole thing might be a big spoof or an in-joke for someone. But this personal ad has caught my imagination.

I guess the chances of that generation being on Facebook or Friends Reunited or MySpace or Bebo, or any social networking site for that matter are fairly slim.  Because of course those would be the starting points for my generation.  We might lack the local networks that past generations had, but our online social networks and a bit of search engine technology, they give us the chance to find people that we might never have got hold of again…
A quick Google search reveals one Mrs Pauline Pratt on Kemsing Parish Council, one at East Kent blood transusion services, and any number of Alan Pratts in Kent, Pratt after all is a local Kentish name (rather like Thorneycroft, Ovenden, Fortescue etc.)  But I can quite understand that if you were Mr Sard you wouldn’t want to just email them randomly to enquire whether they were the same person from 40-odd years ago.

And read that ad – the mind boggles as to what actually happened. 
Did we just bear witness a 1960s Brief Encounter?   
Was Mr Sard at Sandown  alone?
Did he just happen to meet and get to know Mrs Pauline Pratt by chance? 
Just how was Mr Pratt understanding?
What happened?
What’s prompted Mr Sard to search for her now?
Is Mrs Pratt likely to be pleased to hear from Mrs Sard?
Is Mr Pratt likely to be pleased to see this attempt at re-establishing contact?

There’s so many unanswered questions in that ad.  
And so much scope for a novel!  What a fantastic potential plotline.  I didn’t know that ads like this really got placed.

So I wish Mr Sard well, and hope he gets the information he’s looking for*.
And thanks for the inspiration…

* Well, sort of.  As you know I believe in marriage, and in marriage for life.  So if it’s just to know how she’s getting on, fair enough, and if she’s now single and he’s single and getting together was ultimately what they both wanted then fair enough.  But if Mr Pratt is thriving and especially if he and Mrs Pratt actually have a relationship which is less understanding than implied, then in my view Mr Sard should be backing off…

Please pray for Haiti

News reports are now coming out about the full extent of the disaster following the earthquake and landslides in Haiti.
I’ve just read a quote from Louis-Gerard Gilles, doctor and former senator who is helping survivors in Haiti, in the Evening Standard.  He said “Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together”. 
So give to the disaster emergency appeals if you can, but if there’s nothing else you feel you can do, please spare a prayer for the population of Haiti, and let’s look for the small miracles that give hope in this awful situation.

A 5 point guide to UK EU reporting…

eussrno2As you are probably aware, dear reader, UK EU reporting is something of a hobby horse issue for me.
The rather fabulous Mia at Cosmetic Uprise has just posted this, and therefore beat me to it on a critique of the Telegraph’s latest eurotrash.
So instead of repeating it, I offer you instead the updated version of my 5 point “guide” to the rules of UK EU reporting…

The first rule of UK EU reporting is that the most ridiculous nonsense can be published and called fact because few people know or care enough to correct it.

The second rule is that anyone that corrects it (or for that matter wants to share information about what the EU actually is and does) is “biased” or spouting “propaganda”.

The third rule is that no matter how stupid the reporting the UK public is so used to reading this sort of thing that even if proved to be false, the response is a “tut! Wouldn’t put it past them” (precisely who “them” is varies).  On this basis you can pretty much write anything.

The fourth rule is that if you want to get away with doing it, take something like Treaty minutiae that MIGHT be true (e.g. build on the fact that it wasn’t clear that Barroso being appointed under Nice and the others under Lisbon was possible but that it was highly unlikely that any MS would oppose it and that’s what counts under the rules of realpolitik, or that extending the term of the current Commission in order to allow for a Treaty referendum to take place so that it was clear which set of rules the EU should be operating under is somehow scandalous…) and make it scandal. It adds another layer of patina to the already stained and damaged view of the EU in the UK.

The fifth rule of UK EU reporting is that no matter how bad, ridiculous inaccurate (and against the UK national interest?) this sort of reporting is, it will never be as bad as the comments box contents below it will be…   You might need access to the rather excellent glossary from Liberal Conspiracy to understand them all though… (PS image above from the blog – disagree with much there, but I think I and most broadly pro-EU bloggers would agree that it’s not a superstate as described that we’d support either.  But that’s an old argument we’ll return to ad nauseum)

Ceci n’est-ce pas une maison…

Argh.  We’re having a real computer-says-no day. 
The house we’re buying is brand new, and was added to the post office database two months ago at our request.  But trying to get internet mail order delivered, or insurance quotes… 


Husband: “Hello there, we’d like a quote for house insurance on our new house, please at [this address]”
Agent: “that house number isn’t on our database, sir”
Husband: “that’s because your database is out of date. Can you add it manually?”
Agent: “but there’s no house with that number on the database”
Husband: “it’s been on the post office database of addresses for over two months.  Your database is out of date”
Agent: “There’s no house of that number on our system, sir.  Can you contact the post office and get it added?”
Husband (slightly exasperated by now): “but it’s on the post office database. You can go on the Royal Mail database and check it for yourself – I’ve done it and it is”
Agent: “well it’s not showing up on our database, you’ll need to ask the post office to get it added”
Husband (through slightly gritted teeth): “I HAVE had it added.  It’s on the database from the post office, and what’s more I’ve managed to get quotes from other companies who apparently have more up to date databases”
Agent: “but it isn’t showing up on our database”
Fortunately at this point my husband simply stated his disappointment and explained that as they hadn’t updated their database of addresses and there was nothing that either we nor they could do, we’d have to take up a policy with another company.

Well, that’s a shame.  We’d been happy with the policy we’d had from that particular company, but they’re losing our business because their computer said no, and they clearly don’t update their databases as often as their competitors.
Which company was it?  I’m sorry, I’m not going to say more than I have already…

Fluctuat nec mergitur…

I just learnt via that rather fabulous India knight’s Posterous blog that it means “tossed by the waves, she does not sink”.

Sounds like a motto. 
Yeah- definitely a motto rather than a tattoo.
I think India made the right decision that it doesn’t have a tattoo’s worth of cool about it.
(I wanted a red rose around a cross on my ankle when I was 18 and dating a heavy metal fan, but was far too sensible to mark my body permanently.  The coolest tattoo I’ve seen was a colleague’s of a tiny gecko running across her foot).

Besides, unless you’ve a particular bond with Paris, it’s a bit weird to brand yourself with the city motto…
Is there anywhere that has a non-pompous or non-marketing derived alternative city motto?

The City of London has “Domine dirige nos” (Lord lead us, something the bankers should’ve been looking for a bit more I suspect), Rome has “Senatus Populusque Romanus” (the senate and the people of Rome – that’s the SPQR you see everywhere), Amsterdam has Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig (“Valiant, Determined, Compassionate”), bestowed on the city in 1947 by Queen Wilhelmina although the marketing board seems to prefer “I AMsterdam”…   which is suspiciously similar in tone to Berlin’s “be Berlin”.

Still, let’s be unsinkable like Molly Brown. It’s not a bad way to go through life.

Can 2010 be a bit less complicated?

Looking around the blogosphere, it seems that many bloggers stop at New Year to reflect on the year they’ve had, and their aspirations for the coming year.  I’ve decided I’m going to do the same, in the hope that writing down some thoughts will make everything a bit less complicated.
I’m going to make some predictions and comments on the coming year, some personal, some bigger picture.

So 2009.  According to the Facebook statuses of many of my friends, very few people seem to have enjoyed 2009.  I’ve had better, to be honest.  If you look at it objectively, there’s a list of the most stressful things you can do in life and over the last couple of years I’ve done most of them: starting from autumn 2007 I’ve had a baby, we had a death in the family, I had a car crash and resultant injury, had a serially ill child, supported my husband through a career change, returned to work after maternity leave, changed job, handled complex situations at work, moved house, worked outside work hours and without work paying for it towards a qualification… I think I can be forgiven feeling a little stressed…

There have been good things too.  I’ve met some really nice and interesting people, found a lovely house which we’ve helped design so it feels like it’s especially for us, my son  has grown into a lovely toddler, my husband and I have passed the three year anniversary happily, David Tennant was in just about every TV programme over Christmas and I’ve started writing this blog on my very own website which has brought me into contact with some people I’d never have met without it and with whom I’ve done weird things like the euroblogger’s Skype meet-up…

So what does 2010 hold?

1) I will move house.  Again.  Hopefully I’ll not need to do so again for 20 years.
We spent most of 2009 moving house. At least that’s what it’s felt like.  Hopefully in three weeks time I can log on from my own, new house.  It’s so exciting!

2) I will complete my CIPD Certificate in Training Practice.
Did you see my description of myself as “almost a trainer” in the “About Me” blurb? 
I started my professional training qualification in 2006, but had to take time out because of maternity leave – I now need to complete my assessed project by March this year – so that’s a clear deadline.
Wish me luck – and if you need a trainer with my expertise, please do get in touch…

3) There will be a General Election in the UK
There has to be, constitutionally, at least every 5 years, and that’s June this year at the latest.
You know the old joke “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in“? 
There are some differences between the approaches of the main parties (of course if not enough people turn out to vote in each seat under the first-past-the-post system, it’s not just the views of the candidates of the main parties you need to look for…) but there are certainly some similarities, not least in what is being spoken of in terms of cutting public services.  
It’s not clear who is intended to deliver services or ensure that public money is being spent properly by the service deliverers if they are not public servants, but it is clear that no one in the public sector can be complacent that there will always be a job for them, and the pension’s probably not going to remain a golden asset either over the next 40-odd years. 
Elections offer a chance to redefine government-servant relationships, and I understnad that this thinking is underway so I really hope that the role of the civil service and public services are being properly thought out and not just seen as a wodge of public spending to be slashed.

4) International and EU issues will matter even more…
The outcome of the climate change talks in Copenhagen showed that acting big gets you a seat at the top table – the players in getting the deal that mattered were Obama for the USA (population 304,059,724) with the leaders of South Africa (pop 48,687,000), India (pop 1,139,964,932), Brazil (pop 191,971,506) and China (pop 1,325,639,982) . 
While the South Africans have a relatively low population to be part of this grouping, with South Africa and Brazil representing developing continents and growing populations, getting a deal meant having them there. 
But continent-wise, Europe is absent from the top table.
North America, South America, Asia, Africa but the fifth Olympic ring is completely absent. 
Now look at the Daily Mail’s reporting of the deal…

Copenhagen climate change summit delegates have recognised a US-backed agreement on climate change, passing a motion this morning.
The decision follows a US-led group of five nations – including China – tabling a last-minute proposal that US President Barack Obama called a ‘meaningful agreement’.
The fudged deal – backed by Britain, America, South Africa, India, Brazil and China – came after a day of bitter rows and divisions in which the United Nations talks came close to collapse.

Britain?  My understanding from the press was that Britain was not part of the deal, relucantly accepted it as better than no deal at all.  But we weren’t part of that deal. 
Now, no doubt some people here would look at the South African population size and say Britain has a bigger population than that and should have been at the table.  But we share policymaking decisions with neighbouring countries on subjects that affect how we can respond to climate change, and we’ve agreed with them ways in which we will act together – that’s via the European Union.  If we get our act together, in sheer numerical terms we’d warrant a place at the decision-making table, all 499,800,000 of us – third largest population bloc after China and India. 

Copenhagen should act as a real kick up the backside to those that don’t want us to act together as a European Union on the world stage – if we don’t, we don’t count. That’s it.  The Commonwealth’s not a real alternative – India was at that top table in its own right, not representing the Commonwealth.  In any case it’s hard to believe that the sort of people that advocate Commonwealth over EU would see India speaking for them in the international environment in any case, they probably imagine that the UK could successfully lead the way internationally without the need for a power bloc to back up our international standing.  
But Copenhagen showed a new set of powers – not the old cold war blocs any more but a multilateral world where being big matters.  The USA and India are not out to protect the UK’s interests, but the EU is, not least because a powerful Britain is a key market and a defence leader for the other Member States. 
So the choice is EU, or insignificance.
Somehow, I think I’m going to want to be involved in this.   

5) We’ll take some lifechanging decisions…
We gain more family down under this year, but lose family in the Midlands.   This changes our lives as well as theirs – not least because at least one holiday in four will now need to be on the other side of the world. 
As a minimum, I’m going to lose some weight.
But whether it’s jobs or the size of our family, given our ages (mine, my husband’s and our son’s) decisions we make now will affect us in the long run.  I just pray that God is with us as we make them.

6) And I’ll keep writing…
I’m enjoying having a public space in which to comment on things that interest me.  Hope you’ll keep reading.  And a very happy new year.